Women's Brains Summary

Extended Summary

In the mid- to late-nineteenth century, author George Eliot sought to discount the widespread belief that women were innately inferior to men in regards to intelligence. This prevailing outlook was largely supported by the scientific work of one of her contemporaries, Paul Broca, professor of clinical surgery at the Faculty of Medicine in Paris. Relying on comparisons of skull measurement, Broca averred that because women's brains were smaller than men's, they clearly were incapable of reaching the intellectual heights of their male counterparts. Although a few of his fellow scientists rejected his claims about the inferiority of women, Broca's conclusions were widely accepted. Backing up these claims of brain size as the main indicator of intellectual potential with an interpretation of accepted gender social roles and resulting evolutionary pressures, Topinard, "Broca's chief disciple," went so far as to assert:

The man who fights for two or more in the struggle for existence, who has all the responsibility and the cares of tomorrow...needs more brain than the woman whom he must protect and nourish, the sedentary woman...whose role is to raise children, love, and be passive.

During those same years, Gustave Le Bon, a close adherent of Broca's school of thought, published a virulent attack upon women, saying:

All psychologists who have studied the intelligence of women, as well as poets and novelists, recognize...that [women] represent the most inferior forms of human evolution...they excel in fickleness, inconstancy, absence of thought and logic, and incapacity to reason.

Le Bon was "horrified" at suggested social reforms which would grant women access to higher education on the same basis as men. He warned that if women,

misunderstanding the inferior occupations which nature has given her...leave the home and take...

(The entire section is 680 words.)